7 July 2014

Malta’s Tomato Epiphany

We simply don’t get to Malta often enough. The last time was in spring 1980, in fact, when the food in the restaurants was pretty bland. But I remember the crusty bread was delicious. 

Back in Malta again in 2014, the bread was still as delicious as ever, but what came as a revelation (at least to me) were the things that you could dip or spread on it. At Gululu, in the seaside resort of Saint Julians, an excellent restaurant featuring updated Maltese country cuisine, they served generous helpings of four for a starter: ricotta and lemon zest; broad beans mashed with garlic and olive oil; black olives and garlic, very like tapenade; and anchovies and capers, very salty, pungent and delicious. 

What a wonderful way to start a meal, and no wonder the staff at Gululu were turning people away at the door.

On our first trip to Gozo back in 1980, one of the factoids that stayed with us was how Malta’s rural little-sister island was famous for ketchup; in fact these days you can go on a tour and learn about wide number of foods produced on the island—honey, fruit jams, sun dried tomatoes, pulses and Gozitan cheeselets. I was there on a Sunday so had to give it a pass. Next time!

In Gozo’s citadel of Rabat, or Victoria, we sipped Gozitan wines and had a platter of goodies at Ta' Rikardu, a wine bar and local institution. The delightful owner Rikardu has a farm nearby, and produces nearly everything he served,  including sun-ripened and sun-dried tomatoes from his garden, juicy olives and the fattest capers I’ve ever seen, along with his own fresh and aged cheeses, some of which go into his plump ravioli.

A few minutes' drive away at Ta’ Mena, Malta’s first agroturism estate, celebrity chef George Borj treated us to the estate’s lovely white, red and rosé wines, and introduced me to apogee of Maltese tomato-dom, modestly called ‘Sweet Tomato Paste’, artisanally made with tomato pulp preserved in the original pre-refrigeration method, dried and stirred and dried and stirred, with sea salt and sugar. 

The result, spread on bread, was tangy, sweet, rich and utterly delicious. It didn't only taste like a tomato, it tasted better.  A true tomato epiphany.

And as George Borj added, it keeps up to 20 years in the fridge—but there's no way it will last that long.

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